In this week’s Gospel, Jesus seeks a sign from the eternity of heaven. He asks the apostles: Who do people say I am? And, the apostles respond with earthly opinions. Then Jesus asks the big question … the question that will lead His Church into the 21st century and beyond … even into eternity. Who do you say that I am? Once Simon is moved by the Holy Spirit … Jesus knows who will NOW be the leader of the apostles. Now … 2000 years ago. Now … in the 21st century. Now … for all time.
In considering this foundation of reality that undergirds Christian liturgy, we need to take account of another important matter. The Crucifixion of Christ, His death on the Cross, and, in another way, the act of his Resurrection from the grave, which bestows incorruptibility (eternity) on the corruptible (earthly). These events are historical events that happen just once and as such belong to the past. The expression we hear often: “once for all” (which the Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes so vigorously in contrast to the multitude of repeated sacrifices in the Old Covenant), is strictly applicable to them. But if these events were no more than facts in the past, like all the dates we learn in history books, then there could be nothing contemporary about them. In the end they would remain beyond our reach collecting dust.
However, the exterior act of being crucified is accompanied by an interior act of self-giving (the Body is “given for you”). “No one takes [my life] from me,” says the Lord in St. John’s Gospel, “but I lay it down of my own accord” (cf John 10:18). This act of giving is in no way just a spiritual occurrence. It is a spiritual act that takes up the bodily into itself, that embraces the whole man; indeed, it is at the same time an act of the Son. One of the Church Fathers that describes this so well is St. Maximus (600 AD). The obedience of Jesus’ human will is inserted into the everlasting “Yes” of the Son to the Father. This “giving” on the part of the Jesus, in the passivity of His being crucified, draws the passion of human existence into the action of love, and so it embraces all the dimensions of reality … Body, Soul, Spirit, Logos (the Word of God made human). Just as the pain of the body is drawn into the agony of the mind … and becomes the “Yes” of obedience … so time is drawn into what reaches beyond time.
The real interior act of the soul and mind (though it does not exist without the exterior of the body) … transcends time, but since it comes from time, time can again and again be brought into it. That is how we can become contemporary with the past events of salvation. (How we can join our suffering and passion to the suffering and Passion of Jesus on the cross.)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux has this in mind when he says that the true (“once” and for all time) bears within itself the “always”. What is perpetual takes place in what happens only once. In the Bible the Once for All is emphasized most vigorously in the epistle to the Hebrews, but the careful reader will discover that the point made by St. Bernard expresses its true meaning. The “Once For All” is bound up with the “everlasting”. (So, when Simon Peter says: You are the Chirst. Jesus knows this man is speaking not of the earthly understanding … but … moves in the everlasting.) “Today” embraces the whole time of the Church. We experience this very same thing every time we are at Mass. In the Christian liturgy we not only receive something from the past but become contemporaries with what lies at the foundation of that liturgy. Here is the real heart and true grandeur of the celebration of the Eucharist, which is more … much more … than a meal. In the Eucharist we are caught up and made contemporary with the Paschal Mystery of Christ, in His passing from the tabernacle of the transitory to the presence and sight of God.
This week’s readings (especially the gospel) reminds us that, when it comes to Jesus and His working on earth, (like the Jews of His day) we cannot take things at face value. Jesus knew, if He was seen in the eyes of the Jews as the promised king who would free them from Roman influence … He would never be Who He was truly meant to be … the King of kings and the Lord of lords. When it comes to the New Testament, we must read between the lines. (Seeing Jesus in an earth bound reality of a man will limit our worship of Him as God.) This idea of the New Testament as the between-time, as image between shadow and reality, gives liturgical theology its specific form. It becomes even clearer when we bear in mind the three levels on which Christian worship operates, the three levels that make it what it is.
There is the middle level, the strictly liturgical level, which is familiar to us all and is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. These words and actions form the core of Christian liturgical celebration, which was further constructed out of the synthesis of the synagogue and Temple liturgies. The sacrificial actions of the Temple have been replaced by the Eucharistic Prayer, which enters into what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and by the distribution of the consecrated gifts.
But this properly liturgical level does not stand on its own. It has meaning only in relation to something that really happens, to a reality that is substantially present. Otherwise it would lack real content, like bank drafts (or our checks) without funds to cover them. The Lord could say that His Body was “given” only because He had in fact given it; He could present His Blood in the new chalice as shed for many only because He really had shed it. This Body is not the ever-dead corpse of a dead man, nor is the Blood the life-element rendered lifeless.
No, sacrifice has become gift, for the Body given in love and the Blood given in love have entered, through the Resurrection, into the eternity of love, which is stronger than death. Without the Cross and Resurrection, Christian worship is null and void, and a theology of our worship (of liturgy) that omitted any reference to them would really just be talking about an empty game.
The Relationship of the Liturgy to Time and Space.
This week’s readings (especially the first reading) brings up a very interesting aspect about God and man. God exists outside of time (remember He is the Creator of time … and space. He is not constricted or contained in time. As a matter of thought: time and spaced is actually contained in God … past, present and future). I will warn you, if you think about this too much, you will find yourself in a meditative prayer for a few hours … waking up having to think about it over and over. However, Moses tells the People of Israel, this God of ours comes into time and space and says – of all the nations on earth … I choose you! Now, I am going to give you the time and space … how to worship Me and where to worship Me. (Some of you may remember the 60’s expression: “Far out man” … that’s “cosmic”.)
Here’s the question: can there really be special holy places and holy times in the world of Christian faith? Christian worship has to be a cosmic liturgy (something “beyond” ourselves), which embraces both heaven and earth. St. Paul tells us that Christ suffered “outside the gate” and adds this advice: “Therefore let us go forth to Him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him” (Heb. 13:12). Is the whole world not now His sanctuary? Is sanctity not to be practiced by living one’s daily life in the right way? Is our divine worship not a matter of being loving people in our daily life? Is that not how we become like God and so draw near to the True Sacrifice? Can the ‘rites of worship’ be anything other than imitating Christ in the simple patience of daily life? Can there be any other holy time than the time for practicing love of neighbor, whenever and wherever the circumstances of our life demand it?
Some mistaking think that Christ came (comes) into the world and ended needing to come to a place (a building) to worship God.
Whoever asks questions like these touches on a crucial dimension of the Christian understanding of worship … but overlooks something essential about the permanent limits of human existence in this world. A person may overlook the “not yet” that is part of Christian existence and talks as if the New Heaven and New Earth had already come. The Christ-event and the growth of the Church out of all the nations … the transition from Temple sacrifice to universal worship “in spirit and truth” … is the first important step across the frontier: a step toward the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. But it is obvious that hope has not yet fully attained its goal. The New Jerusalem needs no Temple because Almighty God and the Lamb are themselves its Temple. In this City, instead of sun and moon, it is the glory of God and its lamp, the Lamb, that shed their brilliance (cf. Rev 21:22.). But this City is not yet here. That is why the Church Fathers described the various stages of fulfillment … not just as a contrast between Old and New Testaments … but as the three steps of: shadow, image, and reality. In the Church of the New Testament the shadow has been scattered by the image – “The night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Rom 13:12). As St. Gregory the Great puts it as an analogy … it is still only the time of dawn, when darkness and light are intermingled. The sun is rising, but it has still not reached its zenith.
So the time of the New Testament is a peculiar kind of “in-between”, a mixture of “already and not yet”. The “real world” conditions of life in this world are still in force, but they have been burst open … and must be more and more burst open … in preparation for the final fulfillment already just started in Christ.
Allow me to pick up from where I left off last week. On the subject: … how are we to worship God the way He wishes to worship Him? Again, this theme is focus of this week’s readings and gospel as well. Joshua (in the first reading) reminds the People of God (as he reminds us of the 21st Century): are you going to worship God your way … the imperfect (and even demonic) way; or, are you going to worship Him the way He wants to be worshiped? Don’t feel too uptight about what God is asking from us. Even those who were following Jesus admit: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” But … Peter has to admit (though he doesn’t get everything Jesus is talking about) in a kind of blind faith: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe (and are convinced) that you are the Holy One of God.”
Allow me to pick up from where I left off last week (regarding the relationship and worship we give in our liturgical worship:
I wrote about this some weeks back … and need to try to summarize it again:
1. We must regard St. Paul’s concept of: worship and sacrifice with spirit and mind (in theology class: logikē latreia), of divine worship in accordance with the Word of God (Logos), as the most appropriate way of expressing the essential form of Christian liturgy. This concept is like the forks in a river coming together … the conjunction of several different streams: the spiritual movement of the Old Testament, the process of inner purification within the history of religion, human quest … and divine response. The note: the small “L”… that’s the stuff coming from us) logos of creation, the logos in man, and the true and eternal Logos made flesh, the Son, come together. All other definitions fall short. For example, you could describe the Eucharist, in terms of the liturgical phenomenon, as an “assembly”. Or, you could describe It in terms of Jesus’ act of institution at the Last Supper … as a “meal”. But this seizes on individual elements … while failing to grasp the great historical and theological connections. In contrast, the word “Eucharist” points to the universal form of worship that took place in the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Christ … and so it can happily serve as a summary of the idea of logikē latreia (worship and sacrifice with spirit and mind) and may legitimately serve as an appropriate description for Christian worship.
2. Finally (… I know … I know: Where is all this stuff leading to Father Kevin? What are you trying to say?) All these insights open up an essential dimension of Christian liturgy, which we must consider more concretely in the next few weeks. (I have given you the theory in past reflections … now to make them more understandable in the weeks to come.) As we have seen, Christian liturgy is a liturgy of promise fulfilled … of a quest … the religious quest of human history, reaching its goal. But it remains a liturgy of hope. It also bears within it … the mark of impermanence (a movement from here to There). The new Temple, not made by human hands, does exist … but it is also still under construction. The great gesture of embrace (Jesus reaching out to hug us) emanating from the Crucified Jesus has not yet reached its goal … it has only just begun. (This is why we have the Crucifix being brought into Mass, hanging in the air above us at Mass … even centered on the Altar … as a constant reminder.) Christian liturgy is liturgy on the way … a liturgy of pilgrimage toward the transfiguration of the world … which will only take place when God is: “all in all”.
In this week’s readings (especially the gospel), we reflect on Jesus introducing to the world the Eucharist. He tells the listeners 2000 years ago (and today) of Him being the Food needed for us to have life for all eternity. A new covenant is being established before our very eyes. A new form of worship … a perfect worshiping of God being set down by God Himself (which makes it perfect).
So … how are we to worship God the way He wishes to worship Him?
The past few months, my reflections have been to understand our worship (our liturgy). For the moment we must try to sum up some of the conclusions that emerge from what we have said so far.
1. Christian worship, or rather the liturgy of the Christian faith, cannot be viewed simply as a Christianized form of the synagogue service (though much of its actual development owes itself to the synagogue service). The synagogue was always ordered toward the Temple and remained so, even after the Temple’s destruction. The synagogue’s liturgy of the Word (which is celebrated with magnificent profundity), regards itself as incomplete, (and for that reason it is very different from the liturgy of the Word in Islam, which, together with pilgrimage and fasting, constitutes the whole of divine worship as decreed by the Koran). By contrast, the synagogue service is the divine worship that takes place in the absence of the Temple and in expectation of its restoration. Christian worship, for its part, regards the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as final and as theologically necessary. As we hear from the gospel this week, its place has been taken by the universal Temple of the risen Christ, Whose outstretched arms on the Cross span the world, in order to draw all men into the embrace of eternal love. The new Temple already exists, and so too does the new (the definitive) sacrifice: the humanity of Christ opened up in His Cross and Resurrection. The prayer of the man Jesus is now united with the dialogue of eternal love within the Trinity. Jesus draws men into this prayer through the Eucharist, which is the ever-open door of adoration and the true Sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, the “reasonable service of God”.
In modern theological discussion, the exclusive model for the liturgy of the New Covenant has been thought to be the synagogue—in strict opposition to the Temple, which is regarded as an expression of the law and therefore as an utterly obsolete “stage” in religion. The effects of this theory have been disastrous. Priesthood and sacrifice are no longer intelligible. The comprehensive “fulfillment” of pre-Christian salvation history and the inner unity of the two Testaments disappear from view. Deeper understanding of the matter is bound to recognize that the Temple … as well as the synagogue … entered into Christian liturgy.
2. This means that universality is an essential feature of Christian worship. It is the worship of an open heaven. It is never just an event in the life of a community that finds itself in a particular place. No … to celebrate the Eucharist means to enter into the openness of a glorification of God that embraces both heaven and earth (an openness effected by the Cross and Resurrection). Christian liturgy is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church. Mankind’s movement toward Christ meets Christ’s movement toward men. He wants to unite mankind and bring about the one Church (the one divine assembly) of all men. Everything, then, comes together: the horizontal and the vertical, the uniqueness of God and the unity of mankind, the communion of all who worship in spirit and in truth.
(Two more concluding thoughts … next week.)
The Fathers of the Church took up this spiritual development. They saw the Eucharist as essentially prayer made perfect (oratio) … sacrifice in the Word … and in this way they also showed how Christian worship stood in relation to the spiritual struggle of past practices (to its quest for man’s true path and for his encounter with God). The Fathers call the Eucharist simply “prayer”; or, the sacrifice of the Word, but in so doing, they go beyond the Greek idea of the sacrifice and provide an answer to the question left open by Old Testament theology (which made prayer the equivalent of sacrifice). A striking conflict is evident in the great Old Testament movement toward worship in the “Word”.
On one hand: the way is open to a new … positive form … of divine worship. Then, the other: there is still an insufficiency. The Word alone is not enough. There is an anticipation of a restoration of the Temple in purified form. (This explains the apparent contradictions that we find in Psalm 51(50). On the one hand, there is a magnificent unfolding of the new idea of worship: “For you take no delight in sacrifice. … The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit”. On the other, the whole psalm ends with a stirring vision of a fulfillment to come: [Then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.] For its part, the Greeks mysticism, however grand and beautiful, allows the body to fall into ash. The hope for spiritual ascent and universal reunion conforms to the magical (Harry Potter type) pattern. Something is missing.
The idea of the sacrifice of the Word (Logos) becomes a full reality only in the Word Who is made Flesh (Logos incarnates), and draws “all flesh” into the glorification of God. When that happens, the Logos is more than just the “Meaning” behind and above things. Now He Himself has entered into flesh, has become bodily. He takes up into Himself our sufferings and hopes … all the yearning of creation … and brings it to God. The two themes that Psalm 51 (50) could not reconcile (the two themes that throughout the Old Testament keep running toward one another) now really come together (and make sense). The Word is no longer just the representation of something else, of what is bodily. In Jesus’ self-surrender on the Cross, the Word is united with the entire reality of human life and suffering. There is no longer a replacement cult. Now the explicit sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us into that likeness with God … that transformation into love … which is the only true adoration. In virtue of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection – the Eucharist is the meeting point of all the lines that lead from the Old Covenant (and, if you think about it, even from all of man’s expressed religious history). Here at last is right worship (perfect worship), ever longed for and somehow even goes beyond our powers: adoration “in spirit and truth”.
As was said last week, the torn curtain of the Temple is the curtain torn between the world and the presence of God. In the pierced Heart of the crucified Jesus, God’s own Heart is opened up – here we see Who God is and what He is like. Heaven is no longer locked up. God has stepped out of His ‘hiddenness’.
This is why St. John sums up both the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the new worship of God in the mysterious promise made through the prophet Zechariah (cf. Jn 12:10). “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). John will have us read this text again (with a new significance) in Revelation 1:7.
In the past reflections I have been getting very deep with my reflection … but stick with me a little longer. We have so far presented a sketch of the inner energy (dynamism) of the idea of worship in the Old Testament and have shown that there was an intense awareness of the impermanence of the Temple sacrifices together with a desire for something greater, something indescribably new. Before trying to pull everything together and draw some conclusions, we must try to hear the voices in which there is already a presentiment of this new thing that is to come. I am thinking of the tendency (that had already become apparent) of taking up an essentially critical attitude toward the previous forms of worship. In pre-exilic Israel one constantly hears voices warning about the rigidifying of the sacrificial system and its degeneration into externalism and merging of false religion and worship. The Exile came as a challenging opportunity to formulate clearly a positive doctrine about worship and the new thing that was to come.
There was no Temple any more, no public and communal form of divine worship as decreed in the law. Deprived as she was of worship, Israel was bound to feel immeasurably poor and pathetic. She stood before God with empty hands. There was no expiation any more, no “holocausts” ascending to God. In this crisis the conviction became ever clearer that Israel’s sufferings, through God and for God, the cry of her broken heart, her persistent pleading before the silent God, had to count in His sight as “fatted sacrifices” and whole burnt offerings. It was the very emptiness of Israel’s hands, the heaviness of her heart, that was now to be worship, to serve as a spiritual equivalent of the missing Temple oblations.
During the new oppression of Jewish worship under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 B.C.), these ideas (found in the book of Daniel) acquired a new power and significance. They remained alive even after the restoration of the Temple by the Maccabees. (Interestingly, the Qumran community (that many believe John the Baptist was part) formed an opposition to the priestly monarchy of the Maccabees: it did not recognize the new Temple and saw itself instead as dedicated to “spiritual worship”). In Alexandria, the Jews eventually made contact with the Greek review of cult, and from then on the concept of: worship and sacrifice with spirit and mind, which we encounter in the epistle to the Romans (cf. Rom 12:1), grew increasingly important. This was the Christian response to the cultic crisis of the whole ancient world. The sacrifice is the “word” … the word of prayer … which goes up from man to God (embodying the whole of man’s existence and enabling him to become “word” (logos) in himself). It is man, conforming himself to “the word” (logos) and becoming logos through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world. Israel’s experience of suffering (during the Exile and the Hellenistic period) first brought the word of prayer into importance as the equivalent of exterior sacrifice. Now, through the word (logos), the whole philosophy of logos in the Greek world is incorporated into the concept. The Greek mind elevates it eventually to the idea of a mystical union with the Logos (the very meaning of all things).